Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Emerging El Niño raises hopes for another slow hurricane season

Hurricane activity in the Gulf of Mexico could be weakened this season, which begins June 1, depending on a developing El Niño.

Times files

Hurricane activity in the Gulf of Mexico could be weakened this season, which begins June 1, depending on a developing El Niño.

Hurricane forecasters are reporting signs of a developing El Niño, a weather phenomenon that can significantly suppress the number of hurricanes over the upcoming six-month Atlantic season.

"Most of the models right now are forecasting it," hurricane forecaster Phil Klotzbach said.

El Niño would be the key factor in determining hurricane activity during the season, which runs from June 1 through Nov. 30.

An El Niño occurs when warm surface waters from the western Pacific Ocean are pushed to the eastern Pacific. The warmer surface waters cause upper-atmospheric storms and shearing winds that can thwart hurricane formation thousands of miles away in the Atlantic basin — the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean.

Warmer surface waters are being measured by ships, buoys and satellite technology but still need a stronger push, experts say.

"We've been seeing strong westerly winds near the international date line for a few weeks, and that's usually a pretty good precursor of an El Niño event," Klotzbach said.

Preliminary signs show potential for a strong El Niño, possibly during peak hurricane season in late summer, said Jeff Masters, director of meteorology for Weather Underground.

"What we are seeing is similar to 1997, before the start of the greatest El Niño ever recorded," Masters said.

In the 1997 El Niño, it was a typhoon east of the Philippine Islands that created a burst of westerly winds, pushing the warm surface water to the east, Masters said. Only nine storms formed that year, three of them hurricanes.

El Niños, which generally occur every two to seven years, have been traced back tens of thousands of years and are considered part of the basic cycle of the Pacific Ocean. A La Niña is the opposite of El Niño, in which warm surface waters slough back to the western Pacific.

An El Niño can increase surface water temperatures a degree or two or, in extreme cases, as much as 5 or 6 degrees in areas of the eastern Pacific, especially near the equator. Such a change, even when modest, can stoke the atmosphere, causing the type of storms that can disrupt hurricane formation or push storms away from the U.S.

The National Center for Climate Prediction on Thursday issued an El Niño watch: a greater than 50 percent chance of an El Niño in the next three to six months.

At least one other key factor in hurricane formation is pointing to a possible slowdown in seasonal activity: Sea surface temperatures are slightly below normal.

"The Atlantic right now is cooler than normal, maybe just a half-degree or so, but that's significant," said Klotzbach, who, along with veteran hurricane forecaster William Gray, will issue annual seasonal predictions in early April.

The reality is that neither El Niño nor cooler sea surface temperatures are a guarantee against disaster.

Some of the most destructive storms in history occurred during El Niño years. In 2004, four strong hurricanes hit Florida in what was considered a weak El Niño.

And forecasters acknowledge that early season forecasts are not always spot-on.

Most major forecasters badly erred in last year's seasonal projections, predicting on average about 17 named storms, half of them hurricanes and half of those major hurricanes with winds of 130 mph or more.

The season produced only two hurricanes. Neither of them were major storms.

What's more, accumulated cyclonic energy — a measure of the total amount of tropical energy in the Atlantic basin — was about a fourth of the norm.

Emerging El Niño raises hopes for another slow hurricane season 03/06/14 [Last modified: Thursday, March 6, 2014 9:48pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Trigaux: How Moffitt Cancer's M2Gen startup won $75 million from Hearst


    TAMPA — A Moffitt Cancer Center spin-off that's building a massive genetic data base of individual patient cancer information just caught the attention of a deep-pocketed health care investor.

    Richard P. Malloch is the president of Hearst Business Media, which is announcing a $75 million investment in M2Gen, the for-profit cancer informatics unit spun off by Tampa's Moffitt Cancer Center. Malloch's job is to find innovative investments for the Hearst family fortune. A substantial amount has been invested in health care, financial and the transportation and logistics industries.
  2. A boat lays on its side off the shore of Sainte-Anne on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, early Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017, after the passing of Hurricane Maria. [Dominique Chomereau-Lamotte | Associated Press]
  3. 7.1 magnitude quake kills at least 149, collapses buildings in Mexico


    MEXICO CITY — A magnitude 7.1 earthquake stunned central Mexico on Tuesday, killing at least 149 people as buildings collapsed in plumes of dust. Thousands fled into the streets in panic, and many stayed to help rescue those trapped.

    A woman is lifted on a stretcher from of a building that collapsed during an earthquake in Mexico City, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. [Rebecca Blackwell | Associated Press]
  4. FHP seeks semitrailer truck driver that left fiery wreck on I-75


    TAMPA — The Florida Highway Patrol is looking for the driver of a semitrailer truck that sped off from an Interstate 75 crash that left another car burning on Tuesday afternoon.

    Troopers were looking for the driver of a semitrailer truck that sped off from an accident scene on Interstate 75 in Tampa on Tuesday afternoon that caused a car to catch fire. [Courtesy of Florida Highway Patrol]
  5. Joe Maddon gets warm reception in return to the Trop

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — The night was arranged to honor former Rays manager Joe Maddon in his first visit back to the Trop, and the standing ovation from the bipartisan crowd and scoreboard video tribute seemed proper acknowledgments of his hefty role in the Rays' success during his nine-year stint.

    Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon (70) talks with reporters during a press conference before the start of the game between the Chicago Cubs and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017.